First off, brace yourself because this is a monster of an article. After I released an extremely popular article on The Ultimate Guide to Gymnastics Flexibility (find it here) I had a lot of requests for a similar one on Gymnastics Strength. So, first, be sure to grab the free worksheets/downloads below. Second, keep in mind the first half here is more theory and concepts. The second half is the practical drills, exercises, and implementation parts. Dive into whatever you are most interested in!
Without a doubt, strength and conditioning is one of the most important aspects to the sport of gymnastics. It is a foundational pillar that must be present in training for performance success, optimal health, and a reduced risk of injury risk. It falls under the larger umbrella category of Physical Preparation. Alongside strength and conditioning, other key areas are technical development, flexibility, recovery, and more. They complement other important mental areas of training like managing fear or emotions, developing focus, and resilience.
In this blog post, I am going to take a deep dive into Gymnastics Strength. I’m going to blend both the traditional concepts and the newer research-based concepts. I will then give suggestions about what this means for practical day to day training. Lastly, I will break down the different movement categories, offer many video examples, and discuss programming. My hope is that by doing this, it will help many technical coaches, medical providers, gymnasts, and strength coaches working in the sport.
Before we kick things off, I have made some brand new free resources for people to help use this guide.
- I filmed and entire free lecture, and made ‘fill in the blank’ style templates for you to use planning your yearly, monthly, and daily strength programs. It has full examples (the pictures used in this blog) and worksheets that you can fill in. Find those for free by entering your email here!
Download My New
Gymnastics Planning Template & Free Lecture
- Step by step walk through worksheets for yearly, block, monthly, and daily planning
- Strength and conditioning templates to use for planning
- Color coded examples for planning season structure
- Free 90 minute lecture on step by step planning
- Also, you can get my entire book chapter “The Gymnastics Strength Guide” here which expands more on these concepts.
The Gymnastics Strength
and Power Guide
- Methods and exercises for increasing strength and power in gymnasts
- Explanations on why gymnasts should use both weight lifting and body weight strength
- Teaches concepts of planning, specific sets or reps, and planning for the competitive year
The Gymnastics Growth – Skill Crossroads
The sport of gymnastics has evolved significantly. It is now substantially harder than it ever was twenty or even ten years ago. Alongside this, the equipment and technology used also have advanced. Although these advances are useful for pushing the frontier of gymnastics skills that can be performed, they also bring about exponentially more force being placed on the bodies of gymnasts. This brings more risk and more need for baseline physical preparation.
This advance skill level demands more strength, power, and technical development from athletes. It also brings about notable increases in the risk of both acute and overuse injury.
When you look at the global landscape of gymnastics one thing is clear: younger gymnasts are doing harder skills, at higher repetitions, many more hours per week, and in some cases competing more times per year. A vast majority of these athletes are very young kids or adolescents, who are far from being fully matured. Due to all these circumstances, adequate physical preparation for gymnasts is paramount.
This main reason strength and power development are so crucial is because they allow a gymnast to produce, transfer, and absorb force more efficiently. Being able to manage high amounts of force is how advanced gymnasts perform incredible skills and optimize their safety over multiple years.
Gymnasts that are not physically, technically, or mentally prepared for high repetitions of difficult skills are at very high risk for injuries. They also tend to be set up for frustrations with a lack of skill progress. They tend to feel excessive strain when training or competing. For these reasons, we cannot afford to drop the ball on strength and power development in gymnasts.
The desire for gymnasts to compete bigger skills, or move up to higher levels at a younger age, has elevated the amount of risk in pre-pubescent gymnasts. When this is combined with issues like early specialization, year-round training, a lack of workload monitoring, and early recruiting, it creates the perfect storm for overuse injuries to stack up and burnout to creep in.
I have seen this combination of overuse injury and burnout cause many gymnasts to lose months or years of training. I’ve also seen it cause them to fail to make progress in their skill level. Worst of all, many chose to quit the sport.
It is now very common to see young, talented male and female gymnasts speeding through lower compulsory levels to train levels 9, 10, and elite at 11-14 years old.
This creates a situation where we have,
- The most at-risk age group of rapidly developing skeletal systems (9-13 years old females, 10- 14 years old in males),
- Making significant jumps in the amount of force each skill puts on their body (think of the huge force jump from kip cast handstands, compared to giants, compared to blind fulls, compared to Jeagers, etc.),
- Also making significant increases in the amount of time they spend training in the gym (4x/week at 12 hours total for compulsory levels versus 6x/week at 24-30 hours total for optional/elite levels),
- While often going through drastic body changes (physically, hormonally, neurologically, developmentally, socially) and not being at their full peak potential strength capacity.
This is not meant to scare people into stopping gymnastics. It’s to illustrate an important point. I have call this the “Gymnastics Growth – Skill Crossroads.” It is when gymnasts are jumping in skill level during their most at-risk years, placing them at extraordinary risk for reduced performance and increased injury.
I will openly admit I have not coached a nationally ranked, Division 1, or elite level gymnast. I understand this level of gymnastics performance is unique to the majority of what many gymnasts look to achieve. I am fortunate to have worked with or consulted with many gymnasts and coaches who do fall into this category. I am lucky that my last five years have allowed me the ground-level experience to work for this level of gymnast.
The principles that I will highlight in this blog related to strength and power have been used successfully with these athletes. For this reason, I feel they can be applied to everyone in gymnastics.
Should Gymnasts Lift Weights? My Change in Belief
Ten years ago, when working only as a coach, I firmly believed that only gymnastics specific conditioning was required. 95% percent of the strength programs I wrote for gymnasts I worked with comprised of what I did as a gymnast growing up. They were full of bodyweight press handstands, pull-ups, rope climbs, leg lifts, push-ups, squats, lunges, box jumps, and sprints.
Like many other coaches and people involved in the sport, I swore by using only gymnastics specific bodyweight conditioning. I was openly opposed to the use of external weights, general strength exercises seen in mainstream fitness media, or other means of conditioning.
I also believe that gymnasts should be encouraged to train hard every day, and that cycling lighter intensity wasn’t necessary. I rarely had a plan longer than a few days or a week, and I definitely didn’t consider week to week, or month to month, fluctuations in training load.
I believed the myths associated with this mindset. I wasn’t educated or open-minded to the latest science, or what other sports were doing. I was hiding behind my ego with an excuse of “Gymnastics is different, this is what we always do.”
I wrongly believed hat anything but bodyweight strength exercises would cause gymnasts to get bulky, lose their flexibility, and create injuries. I felt the concept of using external weights or doing more general strength exercises like loaded deadlifting was a waste of time.
I stood by this idea with the thought that due to gymnastics being a bodyweight sport with unique demands for skills, only bodyweight exercises should be trained.
Then over the course of a summer in 2014, I started to notice something. We had more and more gymnasts on our team acquiring overuse injuries despite our best efforts.
On a weekly basis, gymnasts we coached were getting diagnosed with stress fractures, growth plate problems, tendon strains, ligament issues, or other pains that really limited their ability to train. As you can imagine, their inability to practice stunted their progress and ability to get new skills or move up in level.
I watched as huge groups of gymnasts became frustrated, became disengaged with training, and became depressed because they could not participate in their primary source of social interaction. Parents were equally upset to see their kids in this state. As more gymnasts became hurt, coaches too became disengaged. Practices seemed to become a drag with more kids hurt than healthy, and coaches felt stuck not knowing what to do to make a difference.
Over months, what started out as a fresh new summer and excitement to train skills slowly turned into day after day taped ankles, doctors’ visits, constant sore wrists and elbows, and needing to modify training because of injuries.
This spike in injuries came as a two-way street, with a paralleled drop in performance. Besides those that couldn’t train due to injury, I also found that many of our gymnasts were not as powerful as I expected them to be. This problem was despite spending countless hours on strength, cardio, and skill technique during the week.
There were a few athletes that needed to turn up the dial on their training intensity, but surprisingly many were doing precisely what they were asked. They were showing up to practice regularly and putting in a ton of work.
They left practice every day drained by the strength, cardio, and skill programs we were asking of them. It’s not that people weren’t making progress. It just was not nearly at the rate I felt should be seen, based on both their work and our coaches’ work in training.
I distinctly remember scratching my head, looking at all the training plans from the last months, and wondering what was happening.
I asked myself – “If we are doing all the gymnastics strength exercises I see online and at clinics, why aren’t the gymnasts getting stronger?”
This period of frustration was all occurring as I had just started my first job working as a newly licensed Physical Therapist. Through my Physical Therapy career, I began to meet and talk with more high level “non-gymnastics” coaches, athletes, and strength and conditioning professionals.
There were several long talks over lunch, and video discussions with people I had developed a network with. I started to have some very eye-opening moments when looking at how all other sports trained and then reflecting on methods our coaching team applied in our gym.
After these long talks and periods of reflection, I more or less went off the deep end wanting to learn more. This period caused me to spend almost an entire year studying as much as I possibly could in strength and conditioning literature. I read books, studied research, went to courses, and asked to shadow strength and conditioning friends of mine. I also read work from fantastic strength professionals like Dr. Bill Sands, Mike Reinold, Eric Cressey, Mike Stone, Tudor Bompa, Charlie Weingroff, Mike Boyle, and many others.
The Olympic Weightlifting and Competitive Fitness community also had a huge influence on my education due to my involvement in a local gym. I was lucky to be able to spend time with some of the highest level Olympic Weightlifting coaches and athletes within the United States. Between online education, live courses, and in-person experiences, I became flooded with new information and ideas.
Even though I was learning from many people outside of gymnastics, I continued to study some of the highest-level JO, elite and collegiate gymnastics programs. I bought and analyzed many of the most popular educational products on gymnastics strength and conditioning I could find. I then reverse-engineered many gymnastics strength programs I had written before and spent an abundance of time analyzing other gymnastics strength programs people offered online, at lectures, or in clinics.
Due to my career in Physical Therapy, I was also reading quite a bit in the fields of injury research, rehabilitation concepts, and surgical textbooks. My motivation was to help patients overcome injuries, but I found a striking similarity between the language used in the strength and conditioning literature and what I was studying.
Following all this reading, I came to realize something significant: I was very wrong about gymnastics strength, conditioning, and injury mechanisms.
The more that I treated gymnasts as a medical provider, studied current strength and conditioning, and learned colleagues that I had met, the more I realized how misguided my thoughts were. I realized that all these injuries and issues related to limited power were not because gymnastics was hard, or gymnasts were not trying hard enough. The truth was found in our approach being nowhere near what science and expert opinion outlined as the best ways to prevent injuries, develop strength, increase power, and plan training.
I started to learn how the unbelievably high rates of overuse and traumatic injury in gymnastics came down to a simple equation: tissue in the body was being loaded at a significantly higher rate than it could handle (1-7).
Load Balance – The Universal Athletic Principle
Despite many factors playing into how much load was being applied, or how much capacity tissues had, the basic equation of load was out of balance. At a foundational level, muscles, ligaments, tendons, and bones were breaking down because the load being placed upon these tissues repetitively during skills or routines was too high for them to handle. (8-14)
For the issue of lacking power output during skills, the same mismatched dosage of workloads created a lack of strength adaptations. I read in multiple textbooks how increased strength was the foundation of power and rate of force development.
I learned about how exercise selection, intensity, and volume must be tailored to the athlete. In our gym, some athletes were being underdosed, causing them not to be stressed enough to increase their strength. Some athletes were being overdosed, without the proper recovery environment or time interval. Both scenarios caused the athlete to not positively adapt to the training.
Most of all, I realized I did not have a system to plan, track, and objectify the workloads that occurred every day. Textbooks I read had a “mad scientist” approach to how meticulously they planned pieces of training. The highest-level coaches had strength programs that went from individual sets or repetitions in one exercise, to four-year plans that aimed to peak athletes for major competitions. I came to learn about this term, periodization, that existed in all successful sporting programs, and discovered a considerable body of incredible science on this topic (15-22).
I was not mindful enough of counting repetitions of skills or routines. I also was not tracking strength exercises across multiple weeks. I wasn’t thinking critically enough about what types of energy systems we were training, and how that impacted our physical preparation. Similar work had just started emerging on the concept of workload ratios and injury risk in many other elite-level sports. Their concepts were echoing research in periodization.
In conclusion, I felt there was not enough emphasis being placed on scientific-based physical preparation for athletes I trained. We were following very excellent coaching expertise on how to build gymnastics skills, but significantly lacked information from this large body of literature about physical preparation, injury mechanisms, periodization, and workload management.
I took away a few major concepts that I wanted to apply in training. For one, my time spent studying the literature validated the idea that tissue break down was likely occurring in many gymnasts due to overuse or under preparation, along with a lack of planning and load monitoring.
I have always had the gut instinct that there is a “sweet spot” for doing too much or too little, with both possibly leading to problems. Tim Gabbett, and many other great academic strength and conditioning researchers helped outline this (16-27). It appeared that if tissue was underprepared, it created an elevated risk of break down during sports training. If tissue was being overtaxed, it too seemed to elevate the risk of break down during sports training.
These concepts lined up with the concepts noted above in the periodization literature, which outlined an optimal dose of work and recovery, so athletes could progress over time and peak for big competitions. It also seemed to correlate with the abundance of physiological and biomechanical research I studied on injury rehabilitation (1, 4-5, 8, 11, 19, 28-34). It also lined up with the hundreds of gymnasts that I was treated for similar injuries. It was striking how much of these ideas from seemingly different fields overlapped.
The second major take away I wanted to apply in training was the science of strength and conditioning. Through these books and research, I learned the neuromuscular physiology of strength training, and how it was the foundation for explosive power many gymnasts desired. Several academic texts outlined the need to stress muscle tissue beyond bodyweight loading. The concept of progressive overload for strength improvements was present as a theme throughout all the research related to performance progress and injury management.
It seemed that strength was the foundational base for increasing speed, enhancing explosive power, and maximizing output. I read about how athletes across multiple sports (some research including gymnastics) were able to see enormous increases in their power with the proper application of resistance training. The programs included adequate planning, exercise selection, and a periodized systematic approach to physical preparation programs.
The third take away I wanted to apply, as I found it most interesting, was the science of cardiovascular and energy systems training. I learned about specific energy systems like the anaerobic and aerobic systems, and the complexities included in each system. They work within different time domains, using different metabolic pathways, have various sources of fuel, have different negative consequences on human performance, and have varying degrees of contribution to energy usage based on the exercise task at hand. I saw how these different systems had a particular way of being trained to increase an athlete’s cardiovascular capacity to create massive power output.
When I reflected on the stories, gymnasts told me about how their injuries occurred, many times the word “fatigue” was used. Whether fatigue referred to a “fatigue fracture” or stress fracture in a bone or fatigue in a floor routine that caused someone to land short and hurt themselves in their last pass, it was a prevalent theme in injured gymnasts.
All of this made me scratch my head quite a bit. I was shocked to see how much information was available related to the science of strength, contributing factors to injury and training of energy systems. When I took a step back to synthesize all the ideas, I was conflicted between what I had been taught in gymnastics for the first five years of my career, what I was seeing done in gymnastics gyms across the world, and what the current body of science suggested were the most optimal way to approach these areas.
It seemed that there was a connection between updating gymnastics strength and conditioning methods, reducing injury risk, and elevating performance. It also seemed there was a large gap between the available information and what information was making its way into everyday training.
I ended up combining my more traditional gymnastics strength programs with aspects of “non- gymnastics” strength programs, based on expert coaching opinion and the available science. I wanted to try a newer “hybrid” approach of gymnastics strength and conditioning I felt was desperately needed.
I had seen versions of this in many college programs, including our team in college that lifted 2x/week in preseason. I had also seen hints of it with other high-level coaches looking to branch out. I wanted to give it a try but, more by diving in with both feet instead of just dipping my toes in the water.
It appeared the sport of gymnastics might be best served with a model that combines the best and most essential traditional bodyweight gymnastics strength exercises with proper weight lifting, external loading, and more general physical preparation approaches. One that also combined the expert opinion of many great gymnastics and strength coaches with the available science.
I felt the abundance of science related to formal strength and conditioning, as well as the benefits or external weight lifting, could be married to the traditional gymnastics sport-specific exercises. Myself and many other gymnastics friends of mine, who themselves were elite or Division 1 gymnasts, felt that it could be a catalyst for an incredible new approach to gymnastics strength and conditioning. We collectively felt it could yield much higher levels of performance, as well as lowered injury rates and longer careers.
It is undeniable that gymnasts need to do a substantial amount of bodyweight physical preparation every day, and every week, to be strong enough to perform high-level skills but also stay safe in the process. Many gymnastic specific exercises such as press handstands, core exercises, pull-ups, rope climbs, leg lifts, plyometrics, body tension exercises, shaping drills, and others are essential to do in training.
However, my research and extensive studies have shown me that we also must be exposing a gymnast to a significant amount of non-traditional gymnastics strength and conditioning exercises. These exercises often involve using external load during basic movements patterns (squatting, deadlifting, weight pressing) that don’t look like gymnastics skills. These exercises that are more general involve dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, weight vests, and other various loading tools to foster adaptation through overload.
How Lifting Weights Helps Reduce Injury Risk in Gymnastics
The physiological science of strength training points to the appropriate application of these tools as very beneficial. They can assist in creating massive increases in sports performance, mainly through increasing strength, power, speed, and force transfer through the body. They can also serve to improve the human body’s ability to handle and disperse load, thus reducing the risk of injury in gymnasts.
This approach is especially true in the upper body where the wrist, elbow, and shoulder joints do not possess nearly the same force absorbing anatomy as the legs. Gymnastics is such a unique sport that places such a high demand on the elbows wrists and shoulders of gymnasts, often 2-4x body weight or more. It is this under preparation and excessive loading, paired with the inherent lack of weight bearing anatomy that sets the stage for many common injuries that plague gymnasts.
These categories include growth plate, cartilage, or soft tissue injuries within the wrist or elbow. (35-36) Many variations of upper body overload injuries exist, but some of the most common are known are
- “Gymnast Wrist” (growth plate or carpal bone injury),
- OCD (Osteochondritis Dissecans)
- Stress fractures
- “forearm splints” in male gymnasts (ulnar bone stress reactions), and
- Triceps growth plate traction injuries (olecranon apophysitis).
Due to these widespread injuries, and the enormous need for upper body strength required to perform high-level gymnastics skills, I feel it’s crucial that we adequately prepare the upper body of young gymnasts appropriately over time.
I think that the proper use of external weights can help bridge the gap between the limited weight bearing capacity of these joints, and the incredibly high forces placed on them in gymnastics skills. I feel an openness to this approach will drastically reduce the risk of injury and enhance performance.
When you look at the lower body and core, it is also very clear to see that there is a huge problem with overuse injury from high loads. The spine takes enormous force during skills and tumbling leading to common issues like
- Stress fractures of the spine like spondylolethesis
- Disc and Nerve irritation
- Muscular strains and ligamentous sprains
External loading can help stress the core to buffer the high forces of skills. This is especially true when looking at tumbling and bar events.
Then lastly, it is very well known that the high jumping and landing forces of gymnastics (measured between 10-14x body weight) can produce huge injury risk. Year after year I treat or hear about 100’s of gymnasts who suffer lower body injuries from high loading such as
- Sever’s Disease and Osgood Schlatters
- Achilles tears and tendinopathies
- Shin Splints
- Meniscus and ACL tears
- Stress fractures
- Hamstring growth plate injuries (ischial apophysitis)
- Groin, quad, and hip flexor strains
- Hip labral tears
There is also significant evidence of these injury rates being a huge worldwide problem across all levels in gymnastics. You can find the latest research here.
- Campbell RA., et al. Injury epidemiology and risk factors in competitive artistic gymnasts: a systematic review.
- Thomas RE., Thomas BC. A systematic review of injuries in gymnastics.
- Desai, N. et al. Artistic Gymnastics Injuries; Epidemiology, Evaluation, and Treatment.
- Westerman RA, et al. Evaluation of Men’s and Women’s Gymnastics Injuries: A 10 Year Study
- Hinds N., et al. A systematic review of shoulder injury prevalence, proportion, rate, type, onset, severity, mechanism and risk factors in female artistic gymnasts.
- Hart E., et al. The Young Injured Gymnast: A Literature Review and Discussion.
If we take a big step back, we have to appreciate that all of these injuries have a common risk factor of force overload (among many others). The amount of loading being done on the body is higher than it’s capacity. Either over time (stress fracture) or in one instance (ACL Tear) the loading is so high it causes tissue damage, and injury often results. More mixed strength programs are one of the best evidence-based tools to reduce the risk of these things causing so much problems for gymnasts.
The question if gymnasts should lift weights during their strength programs is one of the most controversial topics in our current culture. My opinion is there are many myths and misunderstandings about the potential role of weightlifting in gymnastics. As a result, I feel we are missing out on brilliant potential benefits. A close-minded approach to this topic that exists in our current culture is the trap that I once fell into as noted above.
Misunderstandings, along with a lack of time spent studying academic work, create a situation where coaches, medical providers, and gymnasts are missing out on a great source of potential gain. Here are some things to consider related to the role of using weights during strength training in gymnastics.
Misunderstanding 1: Lifting Weights Makes Gymnasts Get Bulky and Lose Skills
There is a false assumption that by lifting weights a gymnast will automatically become big, bulky, and lose their lean body physique. Many fear that this will throw an athlete’s strength to weight ratio off and cause a loss of gymnastics skills. Although in theory, this does hold some truth, the reality of the situation is that this thought is very misguided related to how maximal hypertrophy and body mass is added to an athlete. As Dr. Bill Sands and many other great researchers have outlined, the parameters of hypertrophy in gymnastics and other sports require precise methods.
In his paper, “Should Female Gymnasts Lift Weights?” (published in 2000!) he outlines some interesting unpublished research he conducted with US national team members who did or did not incorporate weight training in their strength programs leading up to the Sydney Olympics. He notes,
“Anthropometry on gymnasts during preparation camps before the Sydney Olympics indicates that weight training does not cause gymnasts to bulk up (unpublished data, WA Sands, 2000). The gymnasts were 33 US national team members, 14 of whom weight trained for two or more sessions per week. In spite of being older (18.1 ± 2.0 vs 16.5 ± 1.0 y), these gymnasts were lighter (48.0 ± 5.4 vs 52.1 ± 5.9 kg), had a lower body mass index (20.3 ± 1.9 vs 21.7 ± 1.9), and were slightly shorter (153.5 ± 4.0 vs 154.9 ± 4.3 cm) than the members of the team who did not weight train. More detailed anthropometry on these gymnasts was not permitted, owing to concerns about body fat and the potential for triggering eating disorders (Nattiv et al., 1994; Nattiv & Mandelbaum, 1993; Noden, 1994; Rosen & Hough, 1988; Wilmore, 1996).”
I do not know the specifics of this research, but this was incredibly interesting to me when reading it. This account on elite-level gymnasts falls in line with the large body of research combatting myths of athletes lifting weights and automatically becoming too “bulky” for sports success.
Research and literature support particular programming methods that must be used to discourage large mass gains and instead promote lean body mass and power development. (see this fantastic reviews in the reference sections for more). Over time with the right coaching, exercises, periodization methods, programming, nutritional guidance, and training habits, this fear of muscle mass impacting gymnastics skills can quickly be pushed aside. When a proper approach is taken, a strength program using external weights can be geared around increasing maximal explosive power in an anaerobic context, which is mostly what gymnastics requires (39-42).
I’ll be honest, it takes a crazy amount of time and work to learn about the science and correct application. It requires humility to seek out knowledgeable strength and conditioning professionals who can learn about gymnastics and be part of the interdisciplinary team. Just as being able to learn about gymnastic skills and teach them to athletes takes a lot of work and time, so does this concept.
Since adopting this newer model, every gymnast I have worked within the last five years, either coaching or for injury rehabilitation, does some form of strength work that utilizing external loading. I feel it is one of the main reasons progress has been seen following prolonged periods of plateau.
Dr. William Sands, who is an expert in fields of gymnastics biomechanics and strength, summarizes this idea brilliantly in his article, “Should Female Gymnasts Lift Weights?”
“Coaching folklore condemning weight training for gymnasts is probably misguided. Weight-training workouts that develop strength with minimal muscle hypertrophy are likely to enhance the performance of female gymnasts. The current skill-repetition approach to developing strength in female gymnasts may cause more hypertrophy than a well-designed program of weight training in the short term, but the relative effect of these forms of training on muscle growth during maturation is unknown.”
I find it very interesting that Dr. Sands highlights how the approach to high volume skill training may be causing more hypertrophy than a well-designed strength program. Similarly, I like that he highlights the need to use specific programming and strategies to optimize lean muscle hypertrophy that is ideal for gymnastics.
We need to train skills for performance, but the high cost of impact forces on young gymnasts’ body must be considered. I feel the balance of adequately developed technical proficiency in skills, paired with a hybrid approach to strength and physical preparation, is by far one of the most effective tools we have to combat injury, burnout, and stalled competition performance in the new era of gymnastics.
Misunderstanding 2: Lifting Weights Causes Injury
There is another false assumption that using weights is dangerous and will cause injury, especially in younger athletes who have not gone through puberty. First off, remember that the forces in gymnastics are astronomical, being upwards of 15x body weight. To say that external loading with weights is not okay due to safety concerns, but hypocritically not address the fact that the same gymnast takes 15x her body weight in force, hundreds of times per week during landings is a bit of a double standard.
The reality of the situation is that if you lift weights the wrong way, with no programming, and don’t understand technique then yes, the risk of injury is high. However, with the proper coaching and programming, this can be avoided, and injury risk is quite low.
Research and literature are abundant about how with proper programming and supervision for correct technique, the risk of injury or long-term damage to youth athletes is minimal (44-46). Also, there is research that supports the idea that organized strength programs that use external weight lifting may be one of the most effective methods for injury prevention (44, 47).
When you think practically about it, this makes sense. Remember I highlighted that injury tends to occur when tissues are underprepared and overloaded, causing damage and injury over time. It’s hard to wrap our head around this in gymnastics, often because we don’t see the high forces during gymnastics skills.
It’s not like a sport like Olympic Weightlifting, where you can see the amount of weight someone lifts and the force that goes through their body. Gymnastics skills show an immense amount of power, height, and amplitude, which make it hard to conceptualize how much force goes through the bodies of athletes.
The fact remains, the forces are real.
There is even more research on the role of formal strength and conditioning with external loading about enhancing sports performance, reducing burnout risk, and encouraging long-term athletic development (47-58).
Strength training that appropriately uses external loading is beneficial to help increase power, break up the monotony that often comes with single sport training, and is correlated to athletes remaining in their sport for a more extended period. This too makes sense, as being able to prepare young gymnasts for high force skills physically can maintain their long-term potential and add variety to their weekly routine.
I honestly feel that many gymnasts simply do not possess the strength to handle the forces of gymnastics. Whether it manifests as the ability to perform skills or unfortunately as being plagued with injury after injury, I see this in gymnasts on a weekly basis.
There comes the point where only bodyweight exercise or even light dumbbells aren’t enough to prepare a gymnast’s body for the insanely high forces of gymnastics. This problem is where adjunctive weight lifting can come into play. Weightlifting and periodization are tools used to systematically teach the body to handle more force, prepare the tissue for loading of skills, and teach proper movement mechanics as a method of injury prevention
Inevitably when considering age concerns and a developing athlete, growth plate injuries come into play. Again, the research is well established that with proper programming and intelligent coaching, the risk of long-term damage or stunted growth to young athletes with external loading can be minimized (40, 44-47, 52, 56).
I will say that in the younger and less developed population, the focus should be much more about proper movement patterns and not so much moving heavy loads. We are cautious in our gym and rehabilitation clinic to give younger gymnasts close supervision, as often they do not possess the maturation and awareness to safety as older athletes. We start to introduce external loading movement patterns around 10 with little or no weight, and then by 12 start to actually have them train with load.
As with anything else in gymnastics, it’s all about proper mechanics and consistency before intensity. When we add weight to our younger gymnasts in the gym, it is only when they demonstrate sound mechanics and understand what they are doing. If they show flawed technique, they do not get weight.
Just as with gymnastics, their goal is more on development and consistency in their movement. If you work with a strength coach who teaches proper movement patterns, understands programming, uses the right exercises, applies close supervision, and understands gymnastics, the risk of injury when using weights with younger athletes is minimal.
Misunderstanding 3: Lifting Weights Makes Gymnasts Lose Flexibility
The third misunderstanding in gymnastics is that by lifting weights, athletes will automatically lose their flexibility.
Again, when the correct approach and programming is used, this also is very untrue. It is true that following a strength training session, the range of motion may be acutely reduced from intentional muscle damage to promote adaptation. Even if proper recovery methods and rest time are given, it may last a few days with delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) (63).
On the contrary to popular thought, properly executed lifting with an external load in a full range of motion is actually one of the best ways to maintain or improve mobility, especially when eccentric contractions are biased (64-69). This tends to occur for a few reasons, one of which is the change induced to the muscle itself when placed under eccentric loading. Another mechanism proposed is the development of full-range control from a neurological point of view.
It is thought that by slowly moving through the range of motion with control and appropriate load, we are convincing the nervous system of safety. It may be that changes in structural tissue and slow exposure to “take the emergency brake off,” are why eccentric training over time yields progress in flexibility. If you are interested in more, please see studies on eccentric exercise in the reference section for much more in-depth histology mechanisms of eccentric training.
If you then take this motion from strength exercises and apply it to sports-specific gymnastics techniques, it can do wonders for maintaining a gymnast’s mobility. Interestingly enough, eccentric strength may also be one huge factor in preventing common types of hamstring, groin, Achilles or other lower body issues commonly seen in gymnastics (70-74). Following an assessment and soft tissue care (both in training and when appropriate in rehabilitation), I frequently prescribe
- Eccentric chin ups for latissimus and teres major mobility
- Eccentric push-ups for pec flexibility
- Eccentric single leg /Romanian deadlifts, and slider fall outs for hamstring mobility
- Eccentric calf and forearm lowers for ankle and wrist flexibility
- Eccentric split squats for quad and hip flexor mobility
- Eccentric lateral squats for adductor mobility
A combination of barbell work, along with unilateral exercises via kettlebells/dumbbells and body control drills, are great ways to go about this eccentric training. The equipment is relatively inexpensive, can be used for multiple athletes across multiple exercises, and tends to last a long time when taken care of appropriately.
I think the notion of losing flexibility is based on the mistaken idea that tissue permanently shortens when we lift weights and lengthens back out when we do stretching or flexibility work. As I covered extensively in the flexibility chapter, there is a lot more that goes into gaining and keeping flexibility. Not to mention the studies combatting the idea that muscle lengthens or changes structurally when we stretch.
Following lifting workouts, yes there may be temporary reductions in range (as happens with any strength methods). Inducing muscle damage can cause soreness, reduced force output, and discomfort. In the long term, when the right exercises, a continuation of soft tissue and mobility work, recovery as well as nutrition education, and the proper programming are used, this myth related to flexibility can again be pushed aside.
I have worked with many gymnasts who have undergone 2+ years of external loading from weightlifting in their strength programs, with no long-term issues related to their mobility. My current thought is that the losses in flexibility athletes experience come from many of the concepts noted in the chapter prior: overuse based soft tissue stiffness, natural growth changes, or flexibility methods that may stress passive structures instead of biasing active structures.
Weightlifting Is Only One Piece Of Our Strength Program
Am I saying weights, barbell, or kettlebell training should replace all traditional gymnastics strength? Not at all. I actually think only using external load is a very bad idea for gymnasts.
All of the gymnasts I work with for rehabilitation or sports performance, utilize external weights as one part of their overall strength or metabolic program.
They still do a very high volume of bodyweight, gymnastics skill-specific, and essential shaping strength on a daily basis. As with most things, the use of external weight lifting with gymnasts must be planned for and part of the larger picture for gymnastics physical preparation.
Gymnastics specific patterns like press handstands, leg lifts, pull-ups, and other well-known exercises continue to be staples in strength programs I write.
However, the addition of external loading within these programs can be significant. A few of these include:
- Building quality movement patterns safely and early for an athlete that is regularly seen in high- level gymnastics (jumping, landing, squatting, reactive overhead control, traction type loading).
- Systematically loading and adapting a gymnast’s body for everyday high-force situations of tumbling or dismount landings, high force overhead upper body impact, and high force overhead upper body swinging.
- Slowly exposing the gymnast’s body to stress so it can adapt and get stronger, increasing resistance to force overload injuries that are an epidemic in gymnastics.
- Helping to bridge the gap between lower force compulsory skills, and much higher force skills optional level or elite skills. I feel the jump between these types of skills and the lack of structural preparation in a gymnast’s body is a primary driver for sparking overuse injuries.
- Helping to maintain global balance within the body and help create general physical preparedness to enhance long-term athletic development.
- We also must remember that external weightlifting during strength must be used at the appropriate time in the competitive season. It must be in conjunction with a long-term plan that understands the goals of different phases throughout the year. This planning is an essential component of periodization.
- Developing 360-degree core bracing and strength strategies that slowly expose the spine to a compression force, so the gymnast can learn to control it and protect their spines from injury.
- Teaching a gymnast neurological control and coordination to express higher force transfer during skill work, causing increased power and increased amplitude.
Clearly, a bias towards weight lifting should not be the main focus during competition and championship season. I feel It should be utilized more in the non-competitive or summer training season, as well as the pre-season, and then maintained to some degree as appropriate.
If we can get past these myths, misunderstandings, and misconceptions about weightlifting, as well as be open to the adjunctive use of weight training with our athletes, I think we will see ongoing problems with injury and the number of gymnasts who fail to make progress in skills.
I highly encourage those readers that are still skeptical about integrating external loading into the sport to not take my word for granted and look at the research themselves. I want people to analyze the information out there, rather than blindly follow my advice.
Here are some of the most helpful resources I have found in trying to gather evidence to change my approach to strength training in gymnasts:
- The 2013 Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis, “The Effectiveness of Exercise Interventions to Prevent Sports Injuries” by Laurensen, Bertleson, and Anderson (4)
(URL Link – http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/early/2013/10/07/bjsports-2013-092538 )
“Conclusions: Despite a few outlying studies, consistently favorable estimates were obtained for all injury prevention measures except for stretching. Strength training reduced sports injuries to less than 1/3 and overuse injuries could be almost halved.” (47)
- The 2016 Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis, “Effect and dose-response relationships of resistance training on physical performance in youth athletes” by Lesinski, Preiske, and Granacher. (48)
URL Link (http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/early/2016/02/05/bjsports-2015-095497 )
“Summary/conclusions Resistance training is an effective method to enhance muscle strength and jump performance in youth athletes, moderated by sex and resistance training type. Dose-response relationships for key training parameters indicate that youth coaches should primarily implement resistance training programs with fewer repetitions and higher intensities to improve physical performance measures of youth athletes.” (48)
- Article by Dr. Sands, “Should Female Gymnasts Lift Weights?” (38)
URL Link (http://www.sportsci.org/jour/0003/was.html )
“Conclusion – Coaching folklore condemning weight training for gymnasts is probably misguided. Weight- training workouts that develop strength with minimal muscle hypertrophy are likely to enhance the performance of female gymnasts. The current skill-repetition approach to developing strength in female gymnasts may cause more hypertrophy than a well-designed program of weight training in the short term, but the relative effect of these forms of training on muscle growth during maturation is unknown.” (38)
- The 2015 International Olympic Committee Consensus Statement on Youth Athletic Development (50)
URL Link – (http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/49/13/843 ) Concluding Points (A few of many): General principles
“Youth athlete development is contingent on an individually unique and constantly changing base of normal physical growth, biological maturation, and behavioral development, and therefore it must be considered individually.
Allow for a wider definition of sports success, as indicated by healthy, meaningful and varied life-forming experiences, which is centered on the whole athlete and development of the person.
Adopt viable, evidence-informed and inclusive frameworks of athlete development that are flexible (using ‘best practice’ for each developmental level), while embracing individual athlete progression and appropriately responding to the athlete’s perspective and needs.
Commit to the psychological development of resilient and adaptable athletes characterized by mental capability and robustness, high self-regulation and enduring personal excellence qualities-that is, upholding the ideals of Olympism.
Encourage children to participate in a variety of different unstructured (i.e., deliberate play) and structured age-appropriate sport-related activities and settings, to develop a wide range of athletic and social skills and attributes that will encourage sustained sports participation and enjoyment.”
Conditioning, testing and injury prevention
“Encourage regular participation in varied strength and conditioning programs that are suitably age-based, quality technique driven, safe and enjoyable.”
“Design youth athlete development programs comprising diversity and variability of athletic exposure, to mitigate the risk of overuse injuries and other health problems prompted by inappropriate training and competition that exceed safe load thresholds, while providing sufficient and regular rest and recovery, to encourage positive adaptations and progressive athletic development.”
“Maintain an ethical approach to, and effectively translate, laboratory and field testing to optimize youth sports participation and performance.”
“Strictly adhere to a “No youth athlete should compete-or train or practice in a way that loads the affected injured area, interfering with or delaying recovery-when in pain or not completely rehabilitated and recovered from an illness or injury.””
- The United Kingdom Strength and Conditioning Associations Position Paper on Youth Resistance Training (44)
URL Link – (https://gse.com/uploads/blog_adjuntos/br_j_sports_med_2014_lloyd_498_505.pdf )
“Summary – A compelling body of scientific evidence supports participation in appropriately designed youth resistance training programs that are supervised and instructed by qualified professionals. The current article has added to previous position statements from medical and fitness organizations and has outlined the health, fitness and performance benefits associated with this training for children and adolescents.”
“In summarizing this manuscript, it is proposed that
The use of resistance training by children and adolescents is supported on the proviso that qualified professionals design and supervises training programs that are consistent with the needs, goals, and abilities of younger populations.
Parents, teachers, coaches and healthcare providers should recognize the potential health and fitness- related benefits of resistance exercise for all children and adolescents. Youth who do not participate in activities that enhance muscle strength and motor skills early in life may be at increased risk for negative health outcomes later in life.
Appropriately designed resistance training programs may reduce sports-related injuries and should be viewed as an essential component of preparatory training programs for aspiring young athletes.
Regular participation in a variety of physical activities that include resistance training during childhood and adolescence can support and encourage participation in physical activity as an ongoing lifestyle choice later in life.
Resistance training prescription should be based according to training age, motor skill competency, technical proficiency and existing strength levels. Qualified professionals should also consider the biological age and psychosocial maturity level of the child or adolescent.
The focus of youth resistance training should be on developing the technical skill and competencyto perform a variety of resistance training exercises at the appropriate intensity and volume while providing youth with an opportunity to participate in programs that are safe, effective and enjoyable” (44)
- The chapter by Faigenbaum, Strength Training for Children and Adolescents, in Strength and Conditioning: Biological Principles and Practical Applications (54)
(Book Link – https://www.amazon.com/Strength-Conditioning-Biological-Principles- Applications/dp/0470019190)
- The fantastic chapter by Gregory Haff, Dispelling the Myths of Resistance Training for Youths in Strength and Conditioning for Youth Athletes: Science and Application (40)
(Book Link – https://amzn.to/31xmxK8)
I also encourage people in the gymnastics world to seek out qualified strength and conditioning coaches to assist them in learning about the science for strength training. Guessing or using methods that you’re unsure about, especially when it comes to proper form and technique, is not only dangerous but also may leave the gymnasts with untapped potential.
Before moving on and explaining more about changing our culture on resistance training in gymnastics, here is a fantastic quote from Dr. William Sands to wrap things up. This section can be found on page 303 of The Science of Gymnastics: Advanced Concepts. (URL Link – https://amzn.to/2G2S7aO)
“Finally, while most sports use weight training to enhance strength fitness, gymnastics has been stubbornly reticent to engage fully in practice, usually for fear of “bulking up.” However, at least one study of female senior national team gymnasts showed that those who practiced weight training were lighter, leaner, the same height and yet older than their non-weight training counterparts.”
What Does Strength, Power, and Plyometric Training Do To An Athlete?
After people have changed their thought process about a new model of strength and conditioning in gymnastics, they often have many more questions to ask when I’m talking to them. In this section, I will share some information about the effects and applications of gymnastics physical preparations.
Many people in the gymnastics community who I speak with are curious to know the basic adaptations of strength training, power training, plyometrics, and cardio programs.
They want to understand the foundational principles of how gymnasts can jump higher, run faster, become more flexible, or do higher-level skills. I think this is of unbelievable importance, and I respect them for wanting to learn more ways to help their athletes.
All coaches, support staff, and medical providers should have a basic understanding of how gymnastics physical preparation programs effect and change the human body. Without this knowledge, it’s like trying to navigate the forest without a compass. It’s very easy to get lost, and waste hours walking in the wrong direction.
The way to understand this is by studying the basic science of strength and conditioning principles. In the next section of this blog, I will try to share some of the basic concepts of the physiology of strength, power, and plyometric training. In a separate chapter, I will break down the basic physiology of cardiovascular and energy systems training.
I don’t want to go too deep on this, as entire textbooks are written on these subjects (many in the references section for those interested), but I do want to give people some basic concepts. Despite some use of terminology, my goal is not to overwhelm people, but instead, take the complex information and translate it in a way that is understandable for every day gymnastics training.
If muscle or neurological physiology is not in your wheelhouse, feel free to try and gather the central concepts and see the practical pieces. As with all areas, I encourage people to find local strength and conditioning professionals to learn more from.
Effects of Strength and Power Training on the Body
I view the entire neuromuscular system as being broken into three general categories:
- The actual muscle tissue (containing contractile units called sarcomeres)
- The neurological system (nerves, motor units that transmit signals to fire muscle tissue, and thelarger controller of the brain)
- The energy systems that fuel muscle tissue (ATP molecules and various metabolic pathways forATP replenishment)
In its most basic form, strength training aims to overload neuromuscular, bone, and cartilage tissue, to cause adaptations. (67,70-72) It is well known that all tissues within the human body require some form of loading to stimulate adaptation and growth. This is why so many people partake in sports, do regular exercise, and try to push themselves within their athletic training regimes.
The appropriate dosage of stress (strength exercises, plyometric drills, external loading) followed by the proper recovery dosage, signals the body to respond to the overload and improve itself (72-77). This happens through many complex signaling pathways, depending on mechanical, metabolic, or hormonal stress, that I do not wish to cover in-depth here.
The takeaway point is this – periods of optimal stress, followed by periods of optimal recovery, is how bones grow stronger, muscles grow in their force-generating ability, and cartilage increases its ability to handle the load (77-80). This is well known in gymnastics and is why many people spend so much time on physical preparation. We want gymnasts to have stronger muscles, ligaments, bones, and cartilage to perform skills and absorb force safely.
With these proper workloads, recovery, and training parameters, certain adaptations lead to increased strength and power over time (71). I will be lumping the categories of strength and power together for it to be better understood, but keep in mind strength and power have many differences in their specific body adaptations. Some of the most prominent principles for adaptation include the following.
Aspects of Muscle Architecture Changes in Response to Strength and Power Training
Muscle Cross-Sectional Area
A muscle’s force producing capacity is primarily dictated by the amount of muscle tissue present, combined with neurological factors (covered below), and energy systems factors (included later). From a muscle tissue point of view, the more cross-sectional area a muscle develops, the more potential it has to create force (41-42).
Many people’s minds jump to thoughts of hypertrophy or massive muscle bulk as seen in bodybuilders when they think about strength training. In reality, with intelligent programming, proper nutrition, and the right balance of mixed training, lean muscle mass can be created that is not massively detrimental to the body weight demands of gymnastics.
Strength training, typically in the form of resistance training or other advanced bodyweight demands, has been shown to increase the cross-sectional area within muscles, thus creating an increased potential for more force production (41-42). This serves as a foundational component of muscular strength.
Based on the type of exercises, the number of sets or repetitions, the total volume, the kind of contraction and other intensity related factors, progress in cross-sectional muscle area can be achieved.
Outside of changes in cross-sectional area, many other factors contribute to overall force output of muscles. Some elements are modifiable through training, and others are not.
Some of these non-modifiable factors include inherent pennation angle, fascicle length, elastic stiffness, muscle temperature, and sarcomere number. 80 I used the word “generally” on purpose, as the research does have many conflicting thoughts on how these aspects of muscle architecture can change over time. I just have not spent that much time searching the archives of muscle physiology to state clearly with research what is valid.
Although I don’t want to overwhelm people with the physiology of this, readers should keep in mind many things go into baseline muscle strength. I have left out several other factors to be considered and encourage readers to check out the books listed if they are interested in more information.
Neural Aspects of Strength and Power Training
Increased Motor Unit Recruitment
A motor unit is defined as “an alpha motor neuron and all the muscle fibers it innervates.” (41) In lay terminology, that means the nerve that transmits a signal to a specific section of a muscle.
Motor units range in size and have generally been shown to be recruited from smallest to largest, based on the activity demand (82). Smaller Type I fibers (slower twitch and more aerobic) are typically recruited at lower demands first, followed by larger Type II fibers (faster twitch and more anaerobic) as higher demands and force rates are required.
The type of activity (slower or faster contraction speed, less or more resistance, concentric versus eccentric contraction) will bias certain muscle types and their motor units. Due to the nature of many activities, often Type I, and slow-twitch fibers are recruited first at a lower force demand. As the demands of the activity increase, the larger Type II fast-twitch fibers and motor units are recruited for additional force output (42).
Gymnastics primarily requires very fast, high power, demands of Type II fast-twitch fiber. However, there are also many important times in gymnastics when slower, type I, more aerobic fibers are required to perform skills over an extended period of time.
Increased Motor Unit Firing Frequency (also called rate coding)
The firing frequency of motor units has to do with the rate of impulse signaling that occurs. If a motor unit fires with much faster frequency, it may enhance overall force output. With more strength and power training, the rate of firing frequency of motor units can be improved. This can lead to more rapid and more significant total force production within a muscle.
Increased Motor Unit Synchronization
Similar to the number of motor units being recruited and the firing rate of those motor units, strength or power training can help improve the efficiency of motor units firing together (41).
With more coordination between groups of motor units in surrounding musculature, we may see significant jumps in strength or power over time. As synchronicity develops within a muscle or between adjacent muscles, force output increases.
On a more global level, this may also happen between joints. Muscle groups along the kinetic chain can be taught to fire with improved coordination as specific patterns of movement are repeatedly trained, and the brain adapts. A clear example would be power increase over time because an athlete learns to use their core, hip, knee, and ankle at the same time during a squat jump (41.)
This concept is mostly seen in gymnastics skill training. A demonstration of this would be when a gymnast learns to use their arms, core, and hips together during tumbling to increase power. Along with the mastery of technique, the increase in strength seen overtime has roots that are traced back to neuromuscular physiology.
Decreased Neuromuscular Inhibition
Our bodies have a built-in braking system with regards to how much maximal force our brain allows our muscles to exert. This aspect is an effort protect us from ourselves. Think about stories of moms lifting cars off their children in times of emergency. Or think of more unfortunate situations where individuals with epilepsy disorders suffer seizures where involuntary muscle contractions cause dislocated joints and broken bones.
The two situations represent positive and negative aspects to this built-in brake being lifted at certain times. It allows our muscles to tap into more force output in times of need. Strength and power training can help to lift this “brake” from the muscular system, as the brain starts to feel comfortable with the strength output more consistently (41-42). This concept is referred to as disinhibition.
Effects of Strength and Power Training on Bone
When correctly implemented, strength training has also been shown to have a very beneficial impact on bone health. Bone development is directly dependent on mechanical loading (82). As force is placed on a bone through compression, shear, axial loading, and other mechanisms, the cells of bones (osteocytes) respond to that stress (82-83).
The signals of force are turned into chemical inputs, a concept known as mechanotransduction. As a result, slowly over time as these stress and recovery cycles continue, the body works to grow new bone tissue to support future demands of a similar nature. This adaptation is commonly known as “Wolff’s Law.”
When the stress or recovery is inappropriately dosed, we see many familiar bone injuries surface. These include,
- Spondylolisthesis (spine stress fracture)
- Osgood Schlatters (knee growth plate inflammation)
- “Gymnast Wrist” (wrist growth plate inflammation) and
- OCD (cartilage damage of the elbow)
These are all injuries that occur when these stress to recovery cycles are not optimally implemented (3,11,56). The bone or cartilage is overstressed due to too much training, improper loading mechanics, or insufficient recovery, and over time inflammation or structural changes transpire.
Remember that on the other side of the coin exists. The positive effects of bone loading when adequately dosed gymnastics progressions, strength training, and overload occur. This approach can be a beneficial way to help bridge the gap between excessive loading from high force gymnastics skills and lacking loading capacity within bones.
Performance Point: Why This Matters for Gymnastics
The reason all the information covered matters for gymnastics is that progressive overload with the right exercises and program design can elicit these well-known adaptations of strength or power training.
By doing physical preparation programs, we can help gymnasts increase muscle cross-sectional area, increase motor unit discharge rates or synchronicity, tap into larger motor units typically associated with fast-twitch type II fibers, and help build the skeletal system’s resilience.
Theoretically, strength training with resistance or other forms of overload can tap into the larger, less recruited motor units. We can also increase cross-sectional area of lean muscle tissue, and when combined with concepts above, increase strength output. These muscle and neurological adaptations then can be used down the road in rate of force exercises (jumping, sprints, explosive drills) to help see increases in power during gymnastics skills.
For example, using dumbbells for Turkish Get Ups can serve as 1/5th the force a gymnast may take on their wrists during a handstand push up or front handspring vault. By slowly loading and progressing these Turkish Get ups and other movements over a few months, while continuing to optimize skill technique, we may be able to increase the wrist and elbow joints capacity to handle weight bearing forces.
This could increase bone and muscle strength, as well as improve the ability to produce force through the arms and core. This may help reduce the risk of injury resulting from numerous vaults or handstand impact skills, as well as build up a gymnast ability to transfer force and increase power during their skills.
Increasing foundational strength serves as the first step to developing many other aspects of physical preparation like power or explosive speed. Increases in the baseline levels of strength serve as the base for other important athletic qualities. The ability to sprint faster for vault or floor, the ability to tap harder on bars, and the ability to sustain longer endurance-based holds for handstand shaping, all have a commonality increasing the foundational strength level of a gymnast.
Many people in gymnastics want to see more power in their gymnasts during skills and routine performance. Regarding classic physics, power is a product of work done over time. It can also be viewed in the context of power is equal to force x displacement over time. I by no means claim to be an expert in physics, but the basic concepts can still be considered.
Therefore, to increase power output, we must either manipulate increasing the force expressed by a muscle, see increased distance traveled, or reduce the amount of time over which this work is performed (41). The most scientifically supported method for increasing the force a muscle can produce is through strength training (70). This is performed with a goal of achieving the adaptations mentioned previously.
The other way that we can increase power is through the manipulation of time. This is often done with specific gymnastics technique drills, plyometric training, and exercises that emphasize rapid movements to increase a muscles rate of force development. For this reason, power, the rate of force development, speed, agility, and metabolic capacity all have some dependence on fundamental strength.
I feel due to the importance of foundational strength following short periods of complete rest; gymnasts should focus on increasing maximal strength during noncompetitive times of the year. Placing more emphasis on foundational strength programs in the first few months of summer, as compared to only doing new drills and skills, may be one of the most important parts of the entire training year.
Following this gain in strength over 3-4 months, gymnasts can then be put through more specific power, the rate of force development, ballistic, and plyometric type training blocks. This helps translate the strength gains made to more gymnastics particular goals, like explosive bodyweight power. I feel this will help many athletes more optimally develop power for skills and routines, along with not overloading them excessively in the offseason with high force skills.
The most outstanding example is training proper squatting and hinging patterns through goblet squats or deadlifts in summer training. These exercises are well known to build up the strength of the quads, hamstrings, glutes, and core (85). The strength gains can be used on top of teaching gymnasts how to land correctly.
The increase in muscular strength, along with knowing how to move properly, may take a significant strain off young gymnast’s growth plates, tendons, and ligaments during the upcoming eight months where they will likely be put through 1000’s of repetitions of landings on hard surfaces that have been recorded at 10-14x body weight. (This will be covered in depth in the medical chapter but see the Science of Gymnastics: Advanced Concepts for the research on this).
The strength gains seen from training these movements can also be applied in the preseason for squat jumps, jumping lunges, kettlebell swings, or speed deadlifts, to increase power output in the legs. This can be transferred very quickly to gymnastics specific technique during tumbling and vaulting. By moving from a systematic strength cycle with squatting and deadlifting, to more power and rate of force development cycle, all while still working skill technique, may create incredible progress in skill power as well as performance.
For more information specific to strength and conditioning in pediatric youth athletes, please see chapter 13 of Strength and Conditioning For Sports Performance by Jeffreys and Moody.
Plyometric Training Effects
Plyometric training incorporates more rapid, fast twitch type exercises. The primary goal of this type of training is to increase a muscles ability to accept, absorb, and return force efficiently.
Typically, plyometric exercises are grouped into low, medium, and high impact. This categorization all has to do with the speed of repetition, and the force produced or absorbed by the body. They are also largely dosed based on their number of ground contacts, amount of loading per repetition, and many other factors that are specific to the athletes training or developmental age.
In gymnastics, plyometric training is regularly seen with panel mat lines, bounding jumps, and squat jump variations. However, there are many other very important applications of plyometrics beyond just these in the lower body, as well as in the upper body (push up shaping hops, handstand blocking) and the core (medball reactive throws and rebounds). These are less commonly used in gymnastics, but I think we will see change more in the future.
Just as with the strength and power section, the central adaptations from plyometric training can be split into muscle architectural effects, and neural effects.
Both of these effects tend to come under the umbrella of something known as the Stretch Shortening Cycle.86-87 This relates to the combination of active eccentric and concentric contractions with a relative isometric period between to handle force.